The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian


Chambered Cairn


Megalithically-minded travellers immersing themselves in the landscape and lore of auld Alba .... perhaps searching for that special 'something' a little out of the ordinary, somewhere off the beaten track... might well consider perusing Greywether's collected field notes as an appropriate introductory well of inspiration. And why not, when monuments of the calibre of the great Balnacrae chambered cairn are included within that canon? I've wanted to come here for several years now; had the map co-ordinates ready and everything. Nevertheless, I guess the extended approach - allied to the possibility of an unclimbable deer fence making all the effort superfluous at, quite literally, the final hurdle - put me off. However, having spent a memorable morning at the Heights of Brae chambered cairn, wondrously sited looking across to the Knock Farril, an expedition - for it is such - to Balnacrae suddenly acquired that rather overused classification of 'must visit'.

A minor road heads west from Evanton approximately tracing the line of the River Sgitheach - to the fast flowing watercourse's north - passing the hamlet of Swordale before running out of tarmac just south of Milton Lodge, beneath the wooded heights of Swordale Hill. I wouldn't say there's plenty of room to park since, according to the occupant of the house when I duly knocked upon his door, the council own the road's terminus, as evidenced by a stationary dumper truck. Please bear this in mind if you come. Anyway, I head off along the private, rough track toward Fannyfield (great name... assuming you've a sense of humour and actually understand what feminism is about, of course), veering right at the buildings to ascend to a forestry track heading into the trees... as such tracks tend to do. Ignoring an initial left hand fork apparently accessing the river, I make swift progress, trending to the left and ignoring all right hand turns until a final section, resembling something from The Somme circa 1916, ensures every additional step extracts the maximum effort, a full-on obstacle course of fallen trees and head high gulleys. Eventually I reach the aforementioned deer fence, the exhausted traveller separated from the boundary line by yet another deep gulley... needless to say the most cavernous yet! The track veers to the northwest toward the ruined farmstead of Balnacrae... however I chance my arm and find it is currently (May 2014) possible to cross the fence at this point to emerge upon the open hill side above Strath Sgitheach. Furthermore a row of stones crowns the rise to my right like a phalanx of warriors drawn up in battle array.... or a group of Easter Island moai pondering whether to 'turn left', as instructed by that dodgy satnav from that equally dodgy shop in Inverness. That'll be the monument, then. And it sure is a big one. The warm glow of success lingers momentarily before it's down to business once more.

As I approach (slightly) uphill my initial impression is that my homework must've been subject to a few too many sherberts since the monument appears to possess a very 'linear' profile, some variant of seriously trashed long cairn, perhaps? However a grassy, circular footprint of significant diameter subsequently says otherwise. As does the wondrous Audrey Henshall, who reckoned in 1963 that this is an 'Orkney-Cromarty type cairn'... with 'an edge, which suggests a diameter of at least 75[feet]', this revised by the OS a couple of years later to c93ft. Morever the stones are very hefty indeed for a chambered cairn, ranging from 2'4" to 6' 6" (dimensions again courtesy of ASH). And there are a lot of them, too, as if to compensate for the almost total loss of the cairn itself. So, why so many chambers stones? As with Greywether before me, the act of mentally reconstructing the now free-standing interior of this chambered cairn is easier said than done... beyond me, to be honest. Two chambers or one? Hmm. ASH reckoned the passage entered to the north-east; however aside from that, the great Balnacrae tomb is an enigma. Come here and see what you think?

I sit in the shade of one of the substantial stones - they offer quite a bit, to be fair - and try to reconcile how the brooding remains of this chambered cairn now slumber in complete and utter obscurity.... when the tomb must once have been the focal point of local life. The Maes Howe of the area, no less. However times have changed, have they not? For good and bad, I guess. No Ladytron back then, for a start. The location is not overly dramatic, but subtle and telling, the cairn occupying the apex of a (very loose) triangle incorporating the heights of Meall a'Ghuail and Cnoc a'Bhreacaich and focussed upon the River Sgitheach, arguably mirroring that of Heights of Brae mentioned earlier. Or most probably vice versa. The realisation that these people knew their landscape inside out is impossible to ignore. Hey, I couldn't even tell you who lives a few doors up from me. As I said, times have changed.

I stay to enjoy the complete and utter peace here until I can linger no more, well aware that I've a bastard of a return in store and attempting it in darkness would not be good. So... if chambered cairns are really your bag be advised that Balnacrae would fall foul of the Trade Descriptions Act. There is but the trace of a cairn here. However if ancient stones help take your thoughts to somewhere you would like them to be... Balnacrae has more than enough.

Oh. Thanks to Greywether for the inspiration to come to this wondrous place. I would love more to come.
2nd January 2015ce
Edited 3rd January 2015ce

Comments (4)

Great stuff. This was on the "very nearly" pile in October. Maybe next year it'll make it to the top. thesweetcheat Posted by thesweetcheat
3rd January 2015ce
Yeah, thought I'd better put some notes on for my favourites last year. Bear in mind the final forestry approach, though. Awful. Perhaps a direct route from Heights of Brae might be easier? GLADMAN Posted by GLADMAN
3rd January 2015ce
yeah, sounds it. I had looked at the forestry route (on the map) - will probably depend on where buses run, although I might end up walking from the train. Heights of Brae also definitely on the likely pile for next year. thesweetcheat Posted by thesweetcheat
3rd January 2015ce
Greywether certainly got around.... GLADMAN Posted by GLADMAN
3rd January 2015ce
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